SUMMARY DESCRIPTION: An unusual Ramadan is days away. Taraweeh prayers will not be possible in mosques; no bond of camaraderie with fellow Muslims nor air of blessings and light that come from the prayers and breaking of fasts in Ramadan. Instead, we are challenged this Ramadan to do everything from home. There is the momentous cancellation of umrah and likely Hajj, as Mecca and Medina are under lockdown; this has not occurred in centuries. When Mecca, Medina and the mosques are empty, there is a huge price that the ummah pays – the sacrifice of blessings (barakat) of people praying, supplicating and doing dhikr and du'a.
We cannot pay such a price without seriously reflecting upon what God is telling us through this pandemic. To believe that God is not a fully involved Creator, or that God is only a casual uninterested observer is not only irresponsible but a form of kufr (ingratitude). Some Muslims speak about material events and the unfolding of things never taking God’s role in the equation, as if God just lets things occur aimlessly and pointlessly.
A wiser, pious Muslim would understand that nothing occurs without having a meticulous cause behind it and that the source of that cause is God. Facing a pandemic that affects the entire nature of Ramadan with such a high cost, it is incumbent on us to first, reflect upon what God is telling us through this pandemic, and second, to recognize we are under an obligation to prove to God our commitment before such a challenge.
The pandemic has already provided a bitter commentary over the way we human beings use resources. The Prophet told us there is no disease on Earth without a cure created by God and it is our obligation to do the research to find the cure for that disease. We live in a world that spends an enormous amount of money on thrills and luxury items, military hardware, means of destruction and even research to satisfy our vanity before satisfying the basic needs of all of humanity. For a country like the U.S. to be losing thousands daily because basic medical equipment is not available should be understood as a sin.
The inequity between rich and poor and between the races is overwhelming. Some Americans can stay home, at worst, it is an inconvenience, but for many others, staying home poses serious, dangerous dilemmas. This pandemic has disproportionately affected racial minorities in the United States far more than white Americans.
One of the first prayers taught in Islam says, “God wants justice (‘adl), and beyond justice, God wants beauty and goodness (ihsan).” It is wiser to pray to God asking to be treated according to His goodness and beauty than to ask to be treated with justice. Many of us, if we just want justice and what we deserve, we will not do very well.
What made the first generation of Muslims such a powerful force? If they were taught to be technical literalists, tasked with figuring out the ins and outs of a text, Islam would have never amounted to anything. The secret power that Islam gave the first Muslims was: first, they were taught their worth as free men and women; that they mattered because God assured them they mattered. And second, they were taught to have a passion for justice and beauty. Approach this Ramadan and this pandemic with the energy of the First of Muslims, not with the energy of today’s broken Muslims who seek the permission of 100 shaykhs before forming their own independent thoughts or sense of morality.
When something like a pandemic comes and closes down Mecca and Medina and our mosques, God is speaking to us. If you study the life of the Prophet, before there was Hijrah or anything, people who were curious about the Prophet would always ask, what is the heart of his message? In a nutshell: there is no God but one God, and ethical character; an innate passion for justice and goodness. Before books of hadith, commentaries on the Quran and the falsehoods attributed to the Prophet of saying, "blind obedience to the ruler" and "tolerate and obey tyrants".
It is only political ideologies that philosophize what we innately know is wrong, such as the fact that quality of care in America greatly depends on one’s race and socioeconomic status. An example of this stark reality comes from this past week, when a Jordanian journalist visited a Muslim mortuary in New York. The owner of this mortuary received 50 bodies of Muslims in two days. Why are so many Muslims are dying in New York? Because many are of low-economic status. They do not have health insurance nor can they stay home without worrying about paying their bills. Instead, they are forced to work until they get infected and infect their families. As a result, this mortuary had so many dead that it ran out of caskets, leaving the mortuary unsure how to bury all the dead.
As we approach this Ramadan, remember the Holy sites are closed. There are no people circulating around the Kaaba, calling upon God to have mercy and blessings upon this Earth. No supplications or du'a in Mecca and Medina. Moreover, angels are not going to be flocking to mosques to bless Taraweeh prayers.
In underdeveloped countries, corona deaths are unnoticed. It is not that the death rates in Italy and Spain are much higher than African countries, the reality is that African countries likely have higher death rates than Italy and Spain, but no one cares to report it.
Mosques are closed, so turn your homes into mosques. Make an effort to pray together as a family this Ramadan, to collectively discuss issues of justice and goodness. Remind each other of those who are in need and talk about what you can do to help those individuals. By the end of this Ramadan, some of us will lose those jobs, health, and lives. Remember that if not for the blessings that come from God, in a moment, you could join those you pity.
A wise person fixes their relationship with God before things get desperate. When you befriend God out of choice, when things are good, it is a very different situation than when you are forced to befriend God out of need.
While the Prophet was in Mecca, many Muslims underwent escalating persecution, including imprisonment and torture. The torture was so severe that it forced some to pretend not to be Muslims or to give up on Islam. But the Prophet often left his home and went to the Kaaba, trying to teach Islam to those in the city. Meccans would often assault and mock him, making noise so people would not hear him. One day, a foreign man made a business deal with a wealthy and powerful Meccan man, who did not pay the foreign man fairly. He went to complain to the Meccan elders who laughed at him because Mecca was known for its unjust treatment of the disempowered. As a cruel-intentioned joke, they told the man to ask the Prophet for help, thinking it will be comical because the Prophet, as a persecuted person, could offer little help. The man asks the Prophet for help, and despite this man being a non-Muslim, foreigner and stranger, when the Prophet hears about this injustice, he takes the man by the hand and goes to knock at the front door of the rich businessman and confronts him. The wealthy man paid. When the rich man’s friends blamed him for giving weight to Muhammad by agreeing to pay, the man said, “I don’t know. He spoke with such strength and resolve. At that moment, it terrified me.”
The Prophet could have easily said to the foreigner, "I'm very sorry, but I can't help you." The purity of this story is in its intuitive sense; it is one of the earliest narratives we have about the pristine actions of the Prophet, at the core, ‘adl (justice) and ihsan (goodness and beauty).
Last week, Dr. Abou El Fadl recorded a short video discussing the murder of Abd al-Rahim al-Huwayti, a man from a Saudi province who was ordered by the government to leave his home for the development of the NEOM project. When he refused, he was killed. The man recorded videos of himself before his own killing, predicting the Saudis would kill him and make him look like a terrorist after the fact. He criticized the Saudi Prince and others.
It would be much easier to keep silent, as no scholar cherishes the opportunity to pick a fight with an unjust government. An academic pays a very high price for speaking truth to power. However, this injustice is our business because as Muslims, we could be like the Prophet, or exactly like those who turn away in the face of injustice. That Islam would have never inspired anyone to become anything. Islam is a passion for justice, beauty and for the disempowered. Islam is a constant call upon the conscience to stand by those who suffer against those who inflict injustice.
As little as it is to record a statement to say, “How dare you, when the entire world is suffering a pandemic, when Mecca and Medina are closed, you are sending your security forces to kick people out of their homes?” it is standing up to injustice.
As long as they have claimed exclusive responsibility of being the caretakers of Mecca and Medina, the Saudi government is obligated to uphold the standards of Islam more than any other government in the world. When we see what they did with a man from the Tabuk province, the way that they execute people in prison, imprison Muslim scholars, persecute the Shia, spend money on yachts and paintings – money that could have saved millions of human beings - and the way they spend money to support dictators in Yemen, Libya and Egypt, it is clear this government is not worthy of Mecca and Medina. They should not have the right to be the custodians of the two Holy sites. May God guide us to the truth and the light.